Editorial – A Matter of Intent

There’s a historic case in front of an Alberta court right now, a judicial question that will unfortunately affect many Canadians in future.

I say unfortunately because the case in question involves whether or not a habitual drunk driver may be labelled a dangerous offender. (The unfortunate part is that, so long as both vehicles and alcohol exist, there will be men and women who decide to combine the two and who the courts will be forced to deal with.)

The case in question involves a man who stole a truck. When police tried to pull him over, he accelerated, crossed into oncoming traffic, and killed a mother and her three young daughters. The man was drunk at the time, and has recently pleaded guilty to four counts of dangerous driving causing death.

The latest drunk-driving charges are part of a pattern; the accused has several previous convictions for the same offence. According to a report in the Globe and Mail, he ?had three previous impaired-driving-related convictions that date back to the 1990s. In total, he has been convicted of 65 criminal charges ranging from robbery to assault.?

Now, as part of his current sentencing, the Crown is trying to have him declared a dangerous offender. If they succeed, it will be a first in Canadian history.

The argument hinges on a key requirement of the dangerous offender legislation: whether or not the man set out to deliberately hurt people. It’s a point that, as one observer noted, will likely see the Crown’s efforts fail. As Sanjeev Anand, University of Alberta criminal law professor, said in a recent interview, the accused in this case ?is engaging in criminal activity, but his goal is not to harm other individuals.?

And That’s where I can’t help but disagree, because to consciously and repeatedly engage in behaviour that you know has a high likelihood of injuring someone shows intent to do just that. The legislation spells it out clearly: a particular offence must have been ?essentially violent or potentially violent and [carry] a potential maximum sentence of at least 10 years or more.? The offender must also demonstrate ?a pattern of repetitive behaviour . . . showing a failure to restrain his or her behaviour and a likelihood of causing death or injury to other persons . . . through failure in the future to restrain his or her behaviour.?

The same section goes on to clarify that along with ?a pattern of persistent aggressive behaviour by the offender,? there must be ?a substantial degree of indifference on the part of the offender respecting the reasonably foreseeable consequences to other persons of his or her behaviour.?

Failing to try and change that behaviour only adds to the argument of intent. In this case, even the man’s defence lawyer admits that he has ?routinely rejected treatment programs for his drug and alcohol addictions.?

There is no way to know exactly what intentions were running through this offender’s mind when he made the decision to drink that day knowing, before he began to consume alcohol, that he had a history of potentially deadly behaviour (i.e., drunk driving) when using it. Nor is it possible to know his precise thoughts when he chose to commandeer a vehicle.

For a young mother and her three girls, their killer’s intentions hardly matter. But for the sake of all the deaths It’s not too late to prevent, It’s important to remember a different intent: that of the dangerous offender act, which is to stop chronic offenders from taking more innocent lives.

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